Are Our Children Equal?

Any parent of more than one child knows how different our kids are – even if they have the same mother and father and were raised in the same household. One’s an athlete, the other a bookworm. One’s an A+ student while another struggles to get Bs and Cs.  One handles stress easily while another melts down at the slightest provocation. 

It’s almost mind blowing, until one considers how different one’s own siblings are from oneself. 

But then again, most parents won’t admit to loving one of their children more than another. We may love them in different ways, but we love them nonetheless. 

But are they equal? And more to the point of this column, should we treat our children equally inside of our estate plans?  Is treating our children the same in our will or trust an implicit obligation to demonstrate – through our very last words and actions – that we really did love them all the equally? 

There is no right or wrong answer here. Suppose that you have a daughter, Veronica who is a world renowned neurosurgeon. Veronica has speaking engagements in London, lives in a mansion and enjoys the good life.  Your son, Thomas, is an eighth grade schoolteacher. He works very hard but struggles to take modest vacations with his family and to save for his children’s college education. 

Should you leave more money to Thomas then you leave to Veronica?   

John Sheppard, my retired law partner, commonly counseled his clients to treat his children equally when making these types of decisions. He would say that the children made their own choices in building their lives, and that we are all just stewards of everything that we own anyway. It was his thought that when leaving more to one child than to another, one makes an implicit nod favoring that child that can leave a hole in the other child’s heart. 

 I don’t know if I agree with his philosophy. I can tell you from first-hand experience, when children are treated differently in an estate plan that the one who is treated less favorably will commonly ask if I knew of anything that they may have said or done to upset their parent. Unfortunately, the parent isn’t around any longer (or we wouldn’t be reading his or her will) to provide assurances that their love was just as strong for the one child as the other who was left more assets or money. 

But that shouldn’t preclude one from leaving more to one child than another, particularly where there is a real need. Consider the child who has a disability, and because of decreased lifetime earning potential may not be able to accumulate sufficient savings to take care of himself in retirement.  Leaving that child a larger chunk of one’s inheritance would certainly be justified.  

Or how about another child who needs a little more help to educate her children? Or the other child who experienced unfortunate medical problems? 

There are all sorts of reasons for treating our children differently inside of our estate planning documents.  

They key to avoiding any emotional trauma that may result from our decision is communication. Whether that communication is through a heart-to-heart with a son or daughter to ensure that they know your estate plan is not representative of your love for him or her, or through a letter that is only to be opened at the time of your death, a few words of explanation can go a long way. 

If it were up to me, I would suggest the lifetime heart-to-heart as opposed to the letter to be opened later.  A letter doesn’t allow for the give and take that a conversation does. It’s best to look your child in the eyes and tell him or her what you really feel. 

What about a punitive situation?  You and the child have had a falling out. Or you don’t like his or her spouse and fear that the spouse will squander the inheritance that you leave your child. These situations are much more volatile. 

Here I usually suggest that the parent take a few days or even weeks to consider the emotional impact of reducing that child’s inheritance or leaving them out altogether. There’s no moral judgment here, just a pause to make sure that the emotions and thoughts are true and consistent. This is never an easy decision to make. 

So in the end there’s a great deal of emotion in our estate plans, whether we are leaving everything equally to our children or not.  Whatever you do, make sure that your heart is in sync with your mind, and that you’ve done your best to communicate your intentions where appropriate.  


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